With Tampa's stacked running back room set to feature Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, KeShawn Vaughn, and the newly-added Giovanni Bernard, the Bucs have a stable of backs to use throughout the 2021 season.
Here is the thing, though: All of the listed backs except for Vaughn have one year remaining on their deals with the Buccaneers, creating long-term instability within the room. With Tampa having no true holes in their rotations after bringing back every Super Bowl starter, general manager Jason Licht can get creative with this year's draft.
The NFL Draft is very unpredictable, causing crazy moves to go down that no one expects. Although many believe the Bucs will add to their trenches with pick No. 32, there is always a possibility that something could go sideways, causing a seismic shift of the draft board.
Despite this fact, we are not expecting Tampa to take a running back in the first round. Instead, we are focusing more on targets that could find themselves getting drafted on day two or three, from rounds two to seven. Barring any trades, the Buccaneers are in a prime position to take one in the third round with pick No. 95, as they did last year with Vaughn.
With that being said, here are scouting reports on a variety of running backs in this year's NFL Draft that the Buccaneers could be wise to consider selecting if the value is right.
Travis Etienne, Clemson
Games watched: Virginia (2020), Miami (2020)
Bottom line, Etienne is a workhorse and is arguably the top running back in this year's class. The level of balance, speed, vision, and burst Etienne has will make him a productive three-down back player at the next level, especially considering his receiving skills out of the backfield. Etienne has sticky hands and elite skills to make plays after the catch, making him a great weapon in Clemson's screen game.
In the open field, Etienne will make defender's lives a living hell, as he is impossible to bring down with his speed and elusiveness. Etienne is a complete back that will do all of the little things well, making an offense better as soon as he steps into one.
Etienne posted unofficial 40 times of 4.41 and 4.43 seconds on his pro day, which matches his on-the-field speed. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound back already has the build that translates well to the next level.
Unless Tampa wants to make a luxury pick at No. 32, there is no way Etienne ends up playing in the Cigar City. However, with both Jones and Fournette having one year left on their contracts, it could be a pick that sets Tampa up for the future, if he is available that late on April 29th.
Najee Harris, Alabama
Games watched: Florida (2020 SEC Championship), Georgia (2020), Notre Dame (2020)
Harris relies on his strength to bounce off would-be tacklers but is very agile for his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. In terms of his ground game, Harris does not impress you as much as someone like Etienne does, but he is effective at gaining four to five yards every time he touches the ball.
In the passing game, Harris is an effective route runner out of the backfield and does well in pass protection. Harris dusts linebackers and even some cornerbacks with his routes because of his first-class footwork, which helps him run and pass situations.
One knock-on Harris is his lack of top-end speed, especially after he chose against running a 40-yard dash at Alabama's pro day.
Despite his speed, Harris is another dual-threat, three-down back that has an NFL skill set who played against the best competition throughout his time at Alabama.
Although Harris posts an impressive resume, I would pass on him at No. 32 if I were Tampa Bay. Harris could turn out to be a respectable NFL back, but I don't see the need to reach for him this early with other positions that could be addressed in the first round. In terms of ceiling, I would select Etienne over Harris, despite Harris's ability to contribute from day one.
Javonte Williams, North Carolina
Games watched: Miami (2020), NC State (2020), Virginia (2020)
Williams will thrive in the right setting at the next level. Similar to Harris, Williams is a strong runner and refuses to let contact shake him, even after multiple defenders have already laid a hand on him. Even at his smaller stature, I find Williams to be the best contact runner in this year's draft. A strong lower half makes Williams an elite runner, paired with speed and quickness. The 5-9 and 5/8ths, 212-pound back is decisive in his runs and cuts, making him even more dangerous. A 4.55 40 time is solid but does not seem to reflect his on-the-field speed.
With that being said, Williams did not show me much in the passing game, although my sample size of games is small. Williams had 25 receptions over the course of 11 games in 2020.
Although Williams is a budding star, the only way I see Tampa taking him in the draft is if they are trying to a long-term replacement for Fournette. Williams could fill that role on paper, but as I said before I have a hard time believing the Bucs will spend their 1st on a running back, and I doubt he'll be available at pick 64.
Michael Carter, North Carolina
Games watched: Miami (2020), Virginia Tech (2020), Syracuse (2020), Boston College (2020)
Despite his 5-8, 201-pound frame, Michael Carter is a playmaker through and through. Like Williams, Carter played his college ball at North Carolina, creating a running back tandem that was the best in all of college football last season.
Carter is a bursty back with good vision as he sees the play develop and reacts to a dime drop. Running a 4.5 40, he has respectable speed and is rarely caught once he gets in the open field. Once the ball is in his hands, Carter is going to make a play.
For Carter, there is limited potential when it comes to the passing game. Carter is inconsistent in pass protection, much due to his smaller frame. Carter will pick up a stunt and take care of his assignment beautifully on some plays, and on the next play, he'll fail to realize where help is needed with pass rushers inbound.
Carter also has inconsistent hands out of the backfield but has incredible playmaking ability in space when he does catch the ball.
It'd be best for Tampa to look elsewhere given Carter's limited ceiling in the passing game, even though he is an outstanding runner. Carter will be a value pick for a team that is looking for a backup on day two or early day three.
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Games watched: Penn State (2019), Ole Miss (2019), Tulsa (2019)
After opting out of the 2020 season, Kenneth Gainwell rejoined his team to work towards his NFL aspirations at Memphis' Pro Day on March 20th. Gainwell weighed in at 201 pounds and ran a 4.42 40 yard dash. Gainwell is known for making big plays after the catch, as he is shifty with the ball in his hands. Perhaps his most effective move is a spin, which is incredibly effective whenever he puts it to use.
Gainwell runs between the tackles well, especially when draw plays are called. The speedster has good vision and once he is gone, he's gone.
Another part of Gainwell's game that is overlooked is his pass protection, in which the 5-11, 201 pounder holds his own against much more physical players.
As a possible fit in Tampa goes, he would be a plug-and-play guy on third down for the pass-happy duo of Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich. It would not be the same RPO-driven scheme he had at Memphis, but Gainwell has the playmaking ability to make it work.
Tampa lacked a true receiving back threat last season after veteran LeSean McCoy saw his reps dwindle until he didn't see the field again. Another explosive playmaker out of the backfield would cause headaches for opposing defensives, giving the Buccaneers even more firepower in their backfield that consists of Jones, Fournette, and now a third-down back in Bernard.
Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Games watched: LSU (2020), Kentucky (2020)
Hill opted out after three games but lit up the box score with his pass-catching ability under first-year head coach Mike Leach. The former WSU coach is known for his Air Raid approach, which Hill fit in quite well in such a short time. Although Hill expanded on his pass-catching ability, he failed to get it going on the ground, only carrying the ball 15 times in three games.
Hill's rushing ability was put on display in 2019 though, as Hill was third in rushing yards in the SEC, despite the talent gap between Mississippi State and the other SEC programs.
On film, Hill's speed sticks out like a sore thumb, despite his slower 4.57 40 time. Hill is a tough, hard-nosed runner who embraces contact, putting his shoulder down every time it comes. The 5-11, 214 pound back is elusive and agile as well, causing defenders to miss in the open field with a combination of quickness and a deep repertoire of ball-carrying moves. Any way that he can, Hill will find a way to steal as many yards on each attempt.
In the passing game, Hill understands his protections and where pressure will be coming from, picking up pressure when it comes. Seriously, if you don't man up Hill, he'll make you regret it. Hill has deadly route-running skills for a running back, one that is able to beat athletic linebackers who are matched up with him in man coverage. Hill has a wide catch radius and soft hands, paired with YAC skills that are hard to find.
If Tampa did not pick up Bernard, I would be pounding the table for Hill on Day three. The skillset Hill has would be an excellent fit for the Buccaneers, especially paired with Brady for a year. After a weird year of development with COVID, Hill showed convincing progress to refine his skills in the passing game and it shows tremendously throughout only three games of 2020 tape.
Throughout the draft process, Hill is a player who has been overlooked because he opted out in 2020. Whoever Hill does fall to should consider themselves lucky as they are getting a steal of a prospect, likely on day three.
Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Games watched: Nebraska (2020), Northwestern (2020 B10 Championship), Clemson (2020)
Trey Sermon is an intriguing prospect, as he played at two top-tier colleges (Ohio State and Oklahoma), but never seemed to break out until his final games as a senior. In his dwindling days as a student-athlete, Sermon boosted his draft stock after showing out in the most important games of the year, the Big 10 Championship and the first round of the College Football Playoff versus Clemson. Sermon's role is well defined as a power back, that does not offer much in the passing game (no more than five receptions in 43 games).
On the ground, Sermon is quick to make adjustments with good vision. Sermon has a good burst but lacks true top-end speed (ran a 4.57 40 at his pro day). The 6-1, 215-pound running back thrives in short-yardage situations as he runs hard, keeps his feet moving, and absorbs contact with ease. Sermon will always fight for extra yards, with a minuscule risk of fumbling (twice in four years, none in junior/senior year).
Although I am high on Sermon as a prospect, I don't see his fit in Tampa Bay due to his similarities to Jones, as they offer much of the same skillset.
Demetric Felton, UCLA
Games watched: USC (2020), Oregon (2020), California (2020)
After setting Mobile on fire during his Senior Bowl performance, Demetric Felton is an intriguing prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 5-9, 189-pound prospect ran a 4.58 at his UCLA pro day and is rather undersized to play running back at the next level.
With his background as a wide receiver, Felton has elite route running ability and knows how to create separation. The shifty back is available to be split out wide, in the slot, and in the backfield.
When running between the tackles, Felton is quick to choose a hole and hits it hard. Once a hand is placed on Felton, he becomes unproductive. To best suit Felton, you must put him in space and let him avoid would-be tacklers.
For Felton, his ability to become an NFL contributor relies on what team he gets drafted to and how they plan to use him. Felton has playmaking ability, but he did not test as well as other players at his position and is stuck in a hybrid role between the two positions he has played. With him being stuck between both running back and wide receiver, he is not as cultivated at one position, raising eyebrows to how he can produce at the next level.
It has been reported that Felton has met with the Bucs multiple times, marking Tampa as a possible destination for the UCLA star. One additional role that Felton could fill for Tampa is a kick returner, as they could use an upgrade from Jaydon Mickens.
Wrapping up, Tampa Bay still has a long-term need at running back if the team chooses against retaining Fournette, Jones, and Bernard heading into 2022. Head coach Bruce Arians has name-dropped Vaughn on multiple occasions after drafting him in round three of last year's draft and is excited about his future, but otherwise, the cupboard projects to be bare a year from now.
The most likely pick of these prospects would be Kenneth Gainwell, who could fit a third-down role after sitting behind Bernard for a year and could also be used as a gadget guy on the road to yet another Super Bowl run. Felton could also fill that role, as he has experience at both wide receiver and running back but has a limited ceiling at both of those positions.
If it were up to me and the Bucs were truly looking for a running back in this year's draft, I would take Gainwell in round three at pick No. 95, or scoop up Hill late in the fourth/fifth round.